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Rukeyser, Muriel 1913–

Rukeyser is an American poet, novelist, playwright, biographer, screenwriter, translator, and children's book author termed by Louis Untermeyer "the most inventive and challenging poet of her generation." She is noted for her ability to imbue all of her poetic themes—the historical, social, and political, as well as the personal—with an intensity derived from her subjective stance. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Sue Ann Alderson

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One dominant subject of Muriel Rukeyser's Breaking Open is that life is one's attitude towards it, and the attitude Rukeyser promotes through these many and varied poems is positive affirmation without sentimentality…. Rukeyser's diction is often abstract, her imagery unadorned. Whatever the occasion for the poem (often autobiographical, as in the poems about her emotionally withholding parents or the many poems stemming from her experiences protesting the war in Vietnam), the important image-ideas are the need for stroking, touching, sharing, transforming, making. Her concerns are those of a mature Jewish intellectual woman writing in the American tradition (see "After Melville"), frequently in response to the Vietnamese conflict. At the same time, in many poems Rukeyser generalizes these concerns; as a Jungian, she is after the archetypal in the particular ("The Running of the Grunion," in which the image of the grunion procreating despite imminent death becomes a symbol of archetypal perseverence/creativity/life is a good example of this and a powerful poem). (p. 46)

Sue Ann Alderson, in West Coast Review (copyright © October, 1975 West Coast Review Publishing Society), October, 1975.

William Meredith

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It is very hard to write the way Muriel Rukeyser does, using your life as the direct vehicle of apprehension, the poems the same thing as closest attention to your daily life….

"The fear of poetry is the / fear," she wrote many years ago. In the new book she asks, "Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?" Clearly the experience of poetry is the cutting edge of the life of someone who speaks like that.

If you are not used to thinking of poetry the way Muriel Rukeyser does, her work can be hard to read. The reader must acquiesce, perhaps more openly than with more conventional poems. Many people seem to have trouble with this beautifully voiced verse….

When the Academy of American Posts recently gave her the Copernicus Award …, the citation started: "From her first book, 'Theory of Flight,' published when she was 21, through her recent collection, 'The Gates' … the work of Muriel Rukeyser has been committed to ideas of freedom." The concerns of her poetry and her life remain inextricable, as with a person who can only tell the truth and take the consequences. The poetry in ['The Gates'] moves toward form, using all her fears—it is crafted in that hard way.

William Meredith, "A Life of Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, p. 26.

Robert Coles

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Upon reading Muriel Rukeyser's latest volume of poems, upon going through The Gates, one feels silent, sad, instructed, grateful…. We all struggle with the sin of pride; Muriel Rukeyser has been blessed with less narcissism than most of us—especially remarkable in such an introspective, sensitive, and self-aware person, who has for so long been committed to telling others what crosses her mind. She is save from self-centeredness by a compassionate concern for others, all over the world, and by a wonderful capacity for self-mocking irony: "Anne Sexton the poet saying/ten days ago to that receptive friend, / the friend of the hand held camera: / 'Muriel is serene'. / Am I that in their sight?" And at another point: "I'd rather be Muriel / than be dead and be Ariel", an entire poem, and shorter than its title: "Not to be Printed / Not to be Said, / Not to be Thought".

Her poem "St. Roach" provides a beautiful lesson in the psychology and sociology of prejudice—worth dozens of social science articles or books. It is also an example of her capacity to distance herself from the self-serving demands of the ego….

She reaches out for all that is part of this earth—for the distant past, even for inanimate matter in the present. In "Painters" she reminds us of the pre-historic men and women who etched animal forms on the walls of caves—an effort to make sense of things, a desire to represent, to show and tell. In "Artifact" she demonstrates an almost unnerving capacity for calm detachment. "When this hand is gone to earth, / this writing hand and the paper beneath it", she begins, and soon tells us what may be left, what may survive—tells us quietly, with no sense of triumph or satisfaction: an artifact—"This pen. Will it tell my? Will it tell our? / this thing made in bright metal by thousands unknown to me …"…

She has a visionary side to her: "There were poems all over Broadway that morning. / Blowing across traffic. Against the legs." In her hands New York City becomes a series of brief images that remind one of James Agee's short film "In the Street". She has a nagging, important historical sense—a side of her that can jolt the reader….

A series of poems is subsumed under a larger thematic effort, titled "Gates", the book's title. "The poet is in solitary", she tells us in a prose prologue: "the expectation is that he will be tried and summarily executed …" Then another person is introduced, "an American woman [who] is sent to make an appeal for the poet's life." This person "stands in the mud and rain at the prison gates—also the gates of perception, the gates of the body." Again Muriel Rukeyser modestly places herself as an onlooker, a compassionate, aroused, decent person who is not quite the other poet whose "stinging work—like that of Burns or Brecht" has managed to get "under the skin of the highest officials". She is no Brecht, nor was meant to be. But she also shows her ideals through calls to brotherhood, sister-hood….

Not that she blinks at the mean, ugly, corrupt, exploitative side of the world. In "New Friends" she makes clear her awareness of the terror many decent, morally honorable and outspoken individuals have to face, day after day…. Still, there are friends, friends of the poet, friends of all that is decent and just in the world, friends who may be "unknown" to the poet, to all who suffer for their goodness and kindness and sensitivity, but who deserve recognition—hence a book titled "Gates", hence poems about the ordinary, the undramatic, hence a salute to those standing near the gates, no Brechts but comrades, indeed, and possessed of their own special, considerable, necessary virtue: Muriel Rukeyser, chief among them.

Robert Coles, "Muriel Ruckeyser's 'The Gates'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Robert Coles), May-June, 1978, p. 15.


Rukeyser, Muriel


Rukeyser, Muriel (Vol. 15)